October Books 12) Vanity Fair

12) Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero, by William Makepeace Thackeray

I really enjoyed this. It’s essentially the story of Becky and Amelia, two girls of English high society of the Regency and reign of George IV, and what happens to them both after they leave school and marry against the wishes of their husbands’ families.

Becky is much the more interesting of the two; her adventures repeatedly lead her to personal and/or financial disaster, but she always bounces back. She is rather selfish in the way she constantly and instinctively exploits those around her, but also does have a good heart in the end. I find her one of the most fascinating characters of Victorian literature; Thackeray’s portrayal of her is sympathetic despite the harsh circumstances.

Although the book’s subtitle is “A Novel without a Hero”, that’s not quite true: the virtuous Amelia is loved from afar by her husband’s friend Dobbin, whose behaviour is pretty saintly. However his gentlemanly and honourable conduct seems a bit of a waste, since Amelia is blind to him for most of the book.

The settings of the story – London, the Crawley country mansion, Brussels, the Grand Duchy of Pumpernickel – are tremendously well realised, especially in their human landscape. I commented last week that Thackeray’s portrayal of a multi-racial London is memorable; also Amelia’s brother Jos is addicted to curries. Thackeray is of course a racist, but at least he actually has black characters.

The first half of the book climaxes at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. I could not help but compare Thackeray’s account of the battle with my memory of Victor Hugo’s version in Les Miserables. For Hugo, it’s an extended flashback to explain certain bits of back-story for Thenardier and Marius; although the battle is described with a historical precision, the really memorable scene is among the corpses on the battlefield after it is over.

For Thackeray, the battle mainly happens off-stage: his characters don’t know the outcome, and he has a brilliant sequence of chapters in Brussels preparing for the coming crisis, including the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, and then the non-combatants left behind in a city swept by rumours as the artillery fire rumbles up from the south. When I worked at CEPS, I used to go and eat my sandwiches in the Parc de Bruxelles, where Thackeray’s characters promenade.

Anyway, lots of neat touches of characterisation, lots of good circumstantial detail, and a plot that kept me reading. It’s rather long – 672 pages of small print in my Penguin copy – but recommended.

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